We need to work hard to develop our psychological and emotional ‘muscle memory’, thinks Nicole Law.
“No one tells you how much of life takes practice, not just writing, painting, running, singing etc but practising how to be a good friend, a good sibling, a good person, recognising your own rage. So much of life is muscle memory.”
I did not expect to get my daily dose of wisdom from Instagram but there it was, a slice of truth that I needed to hear.
I’m convinced that many skills which people possess are a product of both innate ability and consistent practice.
Olympic athletes train for years to condition their bodies to break world records as they push the perceived limits of their physical capacities. Famous musicians practice their instruments for hours behind closed doors, refining their technique and achieving new heights of excellence. Writers like myself sit behind a keyboard, typing away daily to catch the next sliver of inspiration, endlessly revising and tweaking to get the piece ‘just right’.
We therefore associate the acquisition of these skills as correlated with the time and effort invested into their practice. To practice means to apply or use an idea, belief or method, the key here being the active application.
Note that we are not passively sitting by the race track, in front of the piano or at the keyboard, expecting that mere presence will enable us to attain a degree of excellence in the skill of our choice. We know intuitively that to get good at something we need to keep trying, fail often and sometimes succeed.
Of course, our definition of what it means to be ‘good’ at something may vary widely. It may be pegged to an externally defined standard or our own personal sense of what is ‘good enough’. Some of us may place a high degree of pressure on ourselves to ‘perform’ and derive validation from doing so. It affirms us to be ‘good’ at something and to be recognised for it – this is an innate human need.
Yet what I found interesting about the quote is that this notion of practice extended beyond clearly defined skills to the less discussed socio-emotional sphere. For much of our lives, we are taught how to do various tasks, from how to read and write to how to make our tax returns or use new software. We learn to write by writing, paint by painting, talk by talking … you get the idea. We learn to do by doing.
But somehow, it seems less intuitive to consider how to handle ourselves and others in a socio-emotional sense.
No one teaches us how to be a good friend. We encounter friendship head on when we meet someone we connect with.
Yet, how often have we found ourselves wondering whether we are ‘doing things right’? We consider whether we are giving our friend adequate emotional support, whether we are unconsciously treating them like an emotional dump or whether we could be more attuned to their needs.
Being ‘good’ at relating to and connecting to others is not a linear path towards ‘excellence’. We will not wake up tomorrow and fully understand our friends and their motivations and prove ourselves to be the ‘best’ friend they can have.
Instead, we will find that the practice of relating to others will be fraught with misunderstanding. So often we fail to grasp the needs of others and, perhaps more importantly, our own needs – and a complex interweaving of the two.
Much of our own emotional landscape leaks into and is influenced by those we relate to. We take on the emotions of others, we trigger emotions in others, and we soon realise how interdependent we are with the people around us.
How easy it would be if friendship, self-awareness and love came with a fully fleshed out instruction manual. One could ‘practice’ love three times a day and be assured of favourable results.
Our lived experience, however, paints a very different picture – a messy canvas of streaks and smudges and sometimes clashing tones and hues. Making sense of the complexity of our relational and emotional patterns takes time, patience and, I dare say, a lot of practice. It needs a lot of work to move beyond our subconscious beliefs to get to the root of why we do what we do and what has shaped our psyche.
It also takes conscious effort to unlearn behavioural tendencies that are our default responses to situations which make us uncomfortable, but the key is a consistent application of methods that serve us and our emotional health. It requires the development of that same type of muscle memory we apply when it comes to writing, painting and dancing. Once new patterns gradually sink into our system, we learn we have the ability to choose how we react and how we relate.
We are not ‘victims’ of generational or societal patterns but are active agents of change.
This may feel uncomfortable at first and exhaustion may sink it, but the value remains in choosing to be aware of the impact of our actions on others. I am working on myself everyday, as are the people I love. We make mistakes, hurt others along the way and sometimes are unable to ‘show up’ in the way others need us to. But isn’t life so much like muscle memory?
We simply need to keep pounding away at the keyboard of life, hitting backspace a few times, rewriting an entire draft from scratch, but most importantly, never letting the keyboard go silent.
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